WASHINGTON, Nov 18 (Reuters) Top Democratic rivals for US president tore into each other after a conservative columnist asserted front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed to have damaging information about Barack Obama.
The Clinton campaign denied the accusation, saying Obama's reaction to the vaguely worded column by Robert Novak played into Republican hands and showed the Illinois senator's lack of political savvy.
Obama's team later said they took the Clinton campaign at its word but bristled at the idea they fell for Republican tricks and should not have fought back against ''smear politics'' in the race for the presidency in the November 2008 election.
Clinton, a senator from New York and the wife of former President Bill Clinton, has been the target of frequent attacks by Obama and some of the other Democratic contenders for the White House over her ability to deliver straight answers.
Novak, a syndicated columnist, wrote: ''Agents of Sen Hillary Clinton are spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent for the party's presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, but has decided not to use it.'' Novak did not specify the information or give more details about its source.
Obama, a first-term senator seeking to portray himself as an alternative to traditional Washington politics, seized on the article and said Clinton should either come forward with any information she has or repudiate Novak's column.
''She of all people, having complained so often about 'the politics of personal destruction,' should move quickly to either stand by or renounce these tactics,'' Obama said in his initial statement.
He called the column ''a shameless item'' aimed at smearing him through ''innuendo and insinuation.'' Clinton's camp quickly fired back.
''A Republican-leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another. Experienced Democrats see this for what it is. Others get distracted and thrown off their games,'' Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said in a statement.
''We have no idea what Mr Novak's item is about and reject it totally.'' IOWA BATTLE LOOMS The sharp exchange reflects the rising intensity of the campaign seven weeks before Iowa opens the state-by-state battle in each party to pick nominees to run for president.
Clinton leads Obama and former Sen John Edwards in national polls. but in Iowa, the race is much closer.
At a debate among the Democratic hopefuls in Las Vegas on Thursday, Clinton -- seeking to rebound after what was seen as a lackluster performance in a prior debate -- unveiled a more aggressive tone, charging Edwards with ''throwing mud.'' The war of words was criticized as divisive by two of the other Democratic hopefuls, New Mexico Gov Bill Richardson and Delaware Sen Joseph Biden.
''Let's stop this mud-slinging,'' Richardson said during Thursday's debate.
Novak, the columnist, drew wide attention in 2003 with an article divulging the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the wife of a prominent critic of the US invasion of Iraq.
Lewis Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was later found guilty of lying and obstructing the investigation into who blew Plame's cover.
REUTERS DKS BST0546